Finally Lord Justice Leveson has delivered his report regarding press regulations, and for those who work in the media, it is a damning verdict on current and previous behaviour from certain organisations and members. Leveson not only recommends statutory ‘underpinning’ for a new independent system of press regulation, a term coined by the Hacked Off group, but he also rejected the industry’s own proposal for a new body of regulation, describing as ‘not going nearly far enough’ to demonstrate any sort of autonomy from publishers.
Lord Justice Leveson spoke about the behaviours of many journalists and editors, and would not accept that actions perpetuated by certain members or organisations were merely ‘aberrations’, as he stated an empathy with ordinary members of the public, caught up in tragic events beyond their control, who had their experiences ‘made much worse by press behaviour that, at times, can only be called outrageous’. Leveson said that in his view, parts of the press acted as if its own code of regulations simply did not exist and this ‘wreaked havoc’ with the lives of innocent people.
He went on: “There has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm that the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected, like the Dowlers, the McCanns and Abigail Witchalls.” And he singled out the publishers of the News of the World, as they responded to the conviction of their paper’s royal correspondent for hacking into phone messages. He writes: “Most corporate entities would be appalled that employees were involved in the commission of crime in order to further their business. Not so at the News of the World. When the police sought to execute a warrant, they were confronted and driven off by the staff of the newspaper.”
In his report, Lord Justice Leveson says the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), the self-regulatory body that the press are obliged to adhere to, has failed and now must be replaced. He stated that in his opinion, newspapers should not be allowed ‘to mark their own homework’. To clarify, he says: “The press needs to establish a new regulatory body, which is truly independent of industry leaders and of government and politicians. It must promote high standards of journalism and protect both the public interest and the rights of individuals. The chair and other members of the body must be independent and appointed by a fair and open process.”
This new body would handle complaints and there could be sanctions for papers that broke the code, which include the power to levy fines of up to 1% of a paper’s turnover, to a maximum of £1million. He says that this new body should be set up by law. “There should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system.” By doing this, there would be, for the first time, a legal duty on the government to protect the freedom of the press, but, an independent process would recognise the new self-regulatory body. He concluded by saying that although joining the scheme was not mandatory, any major publisher who refused to join would be subject to scrutiny by Ofcom.
The new regulatory body should be wholly independent of current journalists, the government and commercial concerns, and not include any serving editors, government members or MPs. The new body should take a proactive role in promoting high standards, and have the power to investigate serious breaches and sanction newspapers. It should be backed by legislation designed to assess whether it is doing its job properly. There should be an arbitration system, by which people who say they have been victims of the press can seek redress without having to go through the courts.
He also recommended a whistle-blowing hotline for journalists who feel under pressure to do unethical things. Lord Justice Leveson said that politicians belonging to all parties had developed ‘too close a relationship with the press in a way which has not been in the public interest’ and he condemned the lack of respect for individual privacy and dignity from press organisations.
In his response to the Leveson inquiry, David Cameron said: “He [Leveson] goes on to propose legislation that would help deliver those incentives and also – crucially – provide: “an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body”. This would, he says, “reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and would continue to be met”.
Now I have some serious concerns and misgivings on this recommendation. They break down into issues of principle, practicality and necessity. The issue of principle is that for the first time we would have crossed the rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.
We should I believe be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press. In this House – which has been a bulwark of democracy for centuries – we should think very, very carefully before crossing this line.”
In other words, the Prime Minister does not want legislation to back up Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations.
If you agree with the Leveson inquiry and its findings and want to support Hacked Off, you can sign a petition to let the government know that you support the victims of press intrusion on this page http://hackinginquiry.org/.